June 14, 2017

House of Names - Colm Toibin

Scribner, May 9, 2017.

Four Stars

House of Names is Toibin’s retelling of the ancient Greek tale of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and their ill-fated children. The story is violent, vengeful and shocking – and surprisingly modern in theme and execution. Originally described in Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, this version mostly focuses on the events of the first book, in which King Agamemnon is the main protagonist.

Agamemnon is king of the ancient city of Mycenae, but he is hungry for more power and decides to set sail for Troy. He has promised his oldest daughter Iphegeneia in marriage to Achilles – but then the gods offer him favourable winds in exchange for her sacrifice, and the wedding suddenly becomes the gruesome scene of Iphegeneia’s murder. As expected, Clytemnestra goes mad from grief at the death of her daughter and the horrific deceit of her husband. As Agamemnon embarks for Troy, Clytemnestra plans her revenge. She seduces her husband’s enemy and prisoner, Aegisthus, and together they rule Mycenae while Agamemnon is away.

Meanwhile, the remaining children, Electra and Orestes, are forgotten by Clytemnestra – she is eclipsed by her lust for bloody vengeance. And when Agamemnon does finally return, he has brought back a lover of his own. In all the confusion, Orestes is kidnapped by Aegisthus’ men so that his mother Clytemnestra will be forced to collaborate with him in her own plan. Several sections are narrated by Orestes as he eventually escapes and is exiled from Mycenae, although they are not as powerful as Clytemnestra’s first-person accounts. Back at home, Electra bides her time, steeped in cold calculation and rage at her parents’ horrible decisions.

In their tragic quest for glory and power, Toibin brings these mythical characters boldly to life. Clytemnestra especially becomes sympathetic in her grief and rage at the loss of a child and deception of a loved one. While Agamemnon kills at the behest of the gods, Clytemnestra’s murderous feelings are much more human and relatable. This retelling elevates the role of women (Clytemnestra of course, but also Electra) where they are often underrepresented in classical texts – and in contrast, Orestes and Agamemnon are relegated to the background and not even given a first-person voice. While some knowledge of Aeschylus’ original story would be helpful – especially in order to see where this strays from the original and how it fits into the larger story arc of The Oresteia – it can also be read on its own for the compelling, emotional, extreme family drama that it is.

I received this book from Scribner and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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